Ernest Lehman biographer discusses the writer’s spy films

Cover to Ernest Lehman: The Sweet Smell of Success

Ernest Lehman (1915-2005) was one of the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood history. His work covers various genres and includes massive box office successes.

A new biography of the writer is coming out this month — Ernest Lehman: The Sweet Smell of Success.

The blog interviewed the author, Jon Krampner, by email. The interview concentrated on three espionage-themed productions that Lehman scripted: North by Northwest (evoked on the book’s cover image), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, The Prize, and Black Sunday, Lehman’s final movie project. But Lehman also scripted various dramas such as Executive Suite (1954) and musicals, including West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965).

North by Northwest, in particular, had a major impact. Released in 1959, its balance of humor and drama coupled with certain set pieces (especially when a crop duster plane chases after Cary Grant’s Roger O. Thornhill) helped set the stage for the 1960s spy film craze.

1963’s From Russia With Love, in a sequence not part of Ian Fleming’s novel, had a helicopter going after Sean Connery’s James Bond.

Here is the interview.

THE SPY COMMAND: How did Ernest Lehman first get connected to Alfred Hitchcock? How did the idea of a spy thriller evolve?

JON KRAMPNER: They were connected by the composer Bernard Herrmann who, appropriately enough, wound up scoring “North By Northwest.” Herrmann told Lehman he thought he and Hitchcock would get along well, so he set up a lunch meeting for them in Hitchcock’s office at Paramount in late August of 1956.

Herrmann was right — the two did hit it off, so they started to work on adapting “The Wreck of the Mary Deare,” a maritime drama based on the Hammond Innes novel about an abandoned ship found adrift at sea. But Lehman, as he often did during his career, quit the project, feeling there was no way he could turn it into a good film.

Lehman assumed that would be the end of their working relationship, but Hitchcock, enjoying his company, said they should work together on something else. But what? “The Hitchcock film to end all Hitchcock films,” Lehman said, and “North By Northwest” was born.

(NOTE FROM THE BLOG: The Wreck of the Mary Deare was made into a film with Gary Cooper and Charlton Heston)

TSC: Was the Lehman-Hitchcock collaboration a smooth one? Or were there rough patches?

KRAMPNER: Surprisingly, given that they were both control freaks, Lehman and Hitchcock got along pretty well on “North By Northwest,” one exception being when they were working through the crop duster scene in the living room of Hitchcock’s Bel Air home. Hitchcock, who never raised his voice, yelled at Lehman “Why do you insist on telling me how to direct the film?” Lehman would later say he should have told Hitchcock “Why do you insist on telling me how to write it?”

Seventeen years after “North By Northwest,” Lehman and Hitchcock worked together on “Family Plot,” Hitchcock’s last film. That was a different story: Hitchcock was in poor health, but Lehman kept showing up for working and wanting to get on with it. And being an established Hollywood figure himself now, he was less inclined to defer to Hitchcock. That was not a happy collaboration.

TSC: I have written before that North by Northwest had a balance of drama and humor that other films (the Bond series in particular) emulated. What thoughts did Lehman have on this subject?

KRAMPNER: Your observation is apt, but while your question is a good one, I don’t have a good answer. I worked on this book for seven years, but never ran across any musings Lehman had about the James Bond films.

TSC: How did Lehman rank North by Northwest among the movies he scripted?

KRAMPNER: It was not only his signature film, but the only original of his 15 screenplays, so he regarded it highly and with great fondness. Interestingly, the screenplay of his that he identified several times as his favorite was “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” the Rocky Graziano biopic that made Paul Newman a star.

TSC: The Prize came along a few years later. Leo G. Carroll was in the cast. And Paul Newman’s character ends up proposing to the female lead (Elke Sommer). Did Lehman consciously throw in NxNW elements? Or was that in the source material all along?

KRAMPNER: Any plot similarities between “North By Northwest” and “The Prize” were purely intentional on Lehman’s part. As with “The Wreck of the Mary Deare,” Lehman didn’t feel he could make a decent script out of “The Prize” and was preparing to abandon it. But then he decided to play up the Cold-War plot aspects that were less prominent in Irving Wallace’s novel and, in Lehman’s own words, turn it into a “road-company, not first-rate North By Northwest-type film.”

Anyone familiar with “North By Northwest” can find echoes of it throughout “The Prize”:  there’s a riff on the scene where Cary Grant takes the police back to the Townsend mansion in a futile effort to show them that’s where he was set upon by Van Damm and his gang. In “The Prize,” there’s a scene at a nudist colony that evokes NxNW’s auction sequence. And it features not one, but two — is auto-homage a word? — of the conclusion of the crop duster scene, where Cary Grant is almost run over by an oil tanker. In reviewing “The Prize,” Variety derisively referred to Lehman’s “Hitchcockeyed screenplay.”

TSC: How did Lehman feel about The Prize? Was he pleased with it? Or were there issues for him?

KRAMPNER: As suggested by the previous answer, Lehman didn’t think much of “The Prize,” although he was still stung by some of the bad reviews it got

TSC: Black Sunday was Lehman’s last movie. Big cast, based on a best-selling novel. But Lehman shared the writing credit with two others. Was Lehman satisfied or dissatisfied with it?

KRAMPNER: Lehman shared the screenwriting credit with, in that order, Kenneth Ross and Ivan Moffat, with Lehman’s name coming first. He had to share the credit because it was the only one of his films he was fired from, by producer Robert Evans and director John Frankenheimer. They may have wanted “thriller insurance” (Ross had worked on a number of such films), but they also got a film that’s more confusing, has lapses in plot logic and is utterly devoid of Lehman’s trademark humor. In a 1976 seminar Lehman gave at the American Film Institute before “Black Sunday” was released, Lehman said sardonically “I hear it’s very exciting.”.

TSC: Black Sunday is more overtly political (Israeli-Palestinian) compared with NxNW and The Prize. How did Lehman feel about that? Was Black Sunday a happy experience? Or did he know it was time to call it day?

KRAMPNER: Congratulations for spotting a hole in my research: the answer is “I don’t know.” One of the things I ordinarily would have done was to read Lehman’s last draft of the screenplay, among his papers at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. But around the time I would have done so, the plague was upon the land, everyone retreated into their burrows, and I never doubled back to cover that part of the waterfront.

“Black Sunday” was praised for the extent to which it humanized the Palestinian terrorists and their grievances, highly unusual for a big-budget American studio film (that praise was not universal: supposedly the Los Angeles-based B’nai Brith Messenger ran a headline “Robert Evans, Hitlerite.”)

In general, Lehman was pretty apolitical, so if I had to guess, I’d say that one (or both) of the screenwriters who came after him was responsible for that aspect of the script.

TSC: How does Ernest Lehman rank among Hollywood screenwriters? While this interview was concentrated on the spy genre, Lehman handled a variety of subjects. To a layman, such as myself, he seems incredibly versatile.

KRAMPNER: As you might, expect Ernest Lehman’s biographer to say, if he’s not at the top, he’s darn close. William Goldman, another candidate for king of the hill, said, “The three greatest screenwriters are Ingmar Bergman, Billy Wilder, and Ernest Lehman.” The British newspaper The Guardian said “He may have been the most successful screenwriter ever.”

Many are crowded near the top of screenwriting’s pantheon: Nunnally Johnson, Jules Furthman, Nora Ephron, the list goes on. I won’t say Lehman was the best, but he certainly ranked among them.

Ernest Lehman: The Sweet Smell of Success is being published on Sept. 27 by the University Press of Kentucky. For more information, CLICK HERE. It can be ordered at AMAZON and BOOKSHOP.ORG. The latter is a website for independent bookstores and you may want to order there instead of behemoth Amazon.

Biography about writer Ernest Lehman to be published

Cover art for a North by Northwest Blu Ray release

A biography of Ernest Lehman, the screenwriter of North by Northwest and many other films, is coming out in September.

The book is titled Ernest Lehman: The Sweet Smell of Success. Author Jon Krampner has updated potential readers at his Ernest Lehman Bio page on Twitter concerning his research about Lehman and his work.

Lehman (1915-2005) worked in a variety of genres, including musicals such as The Sound of Music and the 1961 version of West Side Story. But Lehman’s scripts for espionage films such as The Prize, Black Sunday, and, especially, 1959’s North by Northwest, is a big source of interest for the blog.

The Alfred Hitchcock-directed movie blended drama and humor as advertising man Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) becomes involved with spies.

In some ways, North by Northwest became a template for 1960s spy movies, including James Bond films.

One of North by Northwest’s major set pieces, where a crop duster plane attacks Thornhill, was the inspiration for a sequence in From Russia With Love where a helicopter menaces Bond (Sean Connery).

In the 1960s, some members of North by Northwest’s cast would have prominent parts on spy shows on American television: Leo G. Carroll (The Man and The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.), Martin Landau (Mission: Impossible), and Edward Platt (as the Chief in Get Smart).

Krampner’s book has a website. It includes an excerpt describing the filming of North by Northwest’s crop-duster sequence. The book is scheduled to debut Sept. 27 and its price is $34.95 in hardback.

Robert Evans dies at 89

Poster for Black Sunday, the 1977 movie produced by Robert Evans

Robert Evans, who had a remarkable career as an actor, studio executive and producer, has died at 89, according to Variety.

As an actor, Evans played MGM producer Irving Thalberg (Man of a Thousand Faces); as an executive at Paramount, he helped get The Godfather made; and a producer he made Chinatown, Marathon Man and Black Sunday.

Evans died on Saturday, Oct. 26, according to Variety.

Evans was as colorful, if not more so, than the characters in his various productions. His wives included actress Camilla Sparv (whose credits included the Matt Helm film Murderers’ Row); actress Ali MacGraw; and former beauty contest winner Phyllis George.

His personal life also included arrests of cocaine possession, according to the Variety obituary.

Nevertheless, when Evans was a Hollywood survivor — in a major way.

The Godfather was one of the most important movies of the 1970s. Chinatown had a huge impact on audiences, gathering 11 Oscar nominations, though only writer Robert Towne won. Black Sunday, a movie based on a Thomas Harris novel, dealt with Middle Eastern terrorism brought to the United States at the Super Bowl.

Evans was the ultimate Hollywood survivor. He wrote a memoir, The Kid Stays In the Picture: A Notorious Life. That was later the basis of a 2002 documentary. 

40th anniversay of the definitive Super Bowl film

Black Sunday poster

Black Sunday poster

Today is Super Bowl Sunday in the United States and this year marks the 40th anniversary of the definitive Super Bowl-related film, Black Sunday.

The John Frankenheimer-directed film was based on a Thomas Harris novel. The 1975 book was a hot property and Paramount snagged the film rights. It was Harris’ first novel and didn’t include Hannibal Lecter as a character.

The studio didn’t scrimp on the production. Besides hiring Frankheimer, the creative team, led by producer Robert Evans, included Ernest Lehman as one of three screenwriters and John Williams as composer. This would be Williams’ final score prior to the original Star Wars movie.

For the lead character, Evans & Co. cast Robert Shaw as an Israeli operative, Bruce Dern as a blimp pilot who becomes part of the terrorist plot and Marthe Keller as one of the terrorists.

The plot concerned Isrealis, working with American law enforcement officials clashing with Middle Eastern terrorists, who have targeted the Super Bowl, the championship game for the National Football League.

Harris’ novel used New Orleans’ Tulane Stadium (site of the 1975 Super Bowl) as a location. Frankheimer’s film utilized Miami’s Orange Bowl, site of the 1976 game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys.

The film crew worked as the game was 1976 played, with real life CBS announcers Pat Summerall and Tom Brookshier making an appearance.

The movie came out in the spring of 1977. It generated a modest $15.8 million box office in the United States, according to Box Office Mojo.

Here’s the trailer of the movie:

Fritz Weaver, dependable character actor, dies at 90

Fritz Weaver's title card for the pilot for The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Fritz Weaver’s title card for the pilot for The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Fritz Weaver, a versatile character in television and movies, has died at 90, according to an obituary in The New York Times.

The Times’ obituary led with how Weaver won he won a Tony award and that he played a German doctor slain by the Nazis in the 1978 mini-series Holocaust.

Weaver’s career extended from the 1950s into the 21st century. It included performances in a number of 1960s spy shows, including the pilot to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (The Vulcan Affair, or its movie version, To Trap a Spy) and multiple episodes of Mission: Impossible. He also appeared in the pilot to Magnum: PI, which had a story line involving international intrigue.

The actor’s non-spy television appearances included two episodes of The Twilight Zone.

Weaver’s film appearances included 1964’s Fail Safe, as an Air Force officer who cracks under pressure, and Black Sunday, a 1977 John Frankenheimer-directed movie about terrorists who attempt an attack at the Super Bowl.

While Weaver never became a star, he found steady work on film and the stage. What follows is a clip of Weaver in a third-season episode of The FBI, where he played a member of a spy ring.